Signs in Changhua.

On Wednesday I had the great privilege of attending the “Second International Workshop on the Conservation and Research Needs of the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, Sousa chinensis, in the waters of western Taiwan,” the first being held in 2004. The workshop is still roaring forward and meets again on Friday beginning at 9:00 at the Formosa Hotel, Sec 2 # 668, Chungcheng Rd, in Changhua (take the train, the station is right on Chungcheng Rd).

The conference, attended largely by foreigners, brought together experts on the dolphin and on Taiwan’s environmental assessment process to discuss some of the issues surrounding the effort to assess and perhaps save the highly endangered Pacific Humpback Dolphin. It afforded a glimpse of the messy and sometimes contentious processes that are involved in putting together such efforts — think of the old adage about public policy and sausage making.

Like me, workman started their day at the train station.

I arrived in the midst of Robin Winkler’s presentation, on the Environmental Impact Assessment process in Taiwan. Listening to him present, I was reminded of a pattern long familiar to any seasoned observer in Taiwan: the legal framework for the EIA was excellent, he said, but the lack of underlying will to enforce the rules, the lack of resources available to the Commission that reviews assessments, and the mentality that governs its process, all mean that the EIA process has currently become “only an exercise in packaging and PR,” as Winkler stated more than once. Outspoken, charismatic, emphatic, Winkler’s long experience with tilting at windmills seems to have been more energizing than embittering, and he spoke with great candor and insight. Winkler has served a term on the EIA Commission as a commissioner.

The Law, he explained, defines the environment in a very broad way, covering the natural world, as well as the full range of human activities, economy, society, and culture. The Commissioners have historically tended to be from environmental engineering and so the point of view they brought to the “impact” issue was largely mitigation, in keeping with the generally developmentalist economic thinking that underpins much of what passes for public policy in Taiwan. The Commission, he also observed, was formed during the martial law period, when information was controlled and outcomes specified by the ruling KMT. In theory the EIA law has a “veto” that says if the project’s impact outweighs its “benefits” then it can be killed, but in practice that never occurs, and the Commission has confined itself to consulting on mitigation. Projects have been denied, but only because budgets were insufficient, or because it was felt the money could be better spent elsewhere. The environment is never a reason to kill a project in Taiwan, and Taiwan has yet to experience a Tellico Dam.

The workshop.

Winkler explained that a big part of the problem is that being a Commissioner is only a part-time job. Commissioners all have their own lives and other full time jobs. They lack the big budgets, resources, and expertise that large corporations can bring to the table. The review has to be performed on their own and they are not given their own budgets, offices, or assistants — yet they may “review” 200 cases in a term. This makes it almost impossible to effectively evaluate an EIA. According to the law, 2/3 of the Commissioners must be from academia and NGOs, 1/3 from the government, but in practice these lines are sometimes blurred. Commissioners tend to review from within their own area of expertise — for example, if the commissioner is a noise expert, she might only look at the noise aspects of the EIA. In decision making, Commissioners generally try to come to a consensus, and vote only if there is a holdout or when pressured to come to a solution.

Another problematic structural feature of the process is that the corporations themselves hire the outside consultants who perform the EIA — meaning that it will probably reflect the concerns of the corporation. Further, the way the law is written, the EIA applies to projects of certain sizes — meaning that it can be skirted simply by breaking the project up into small pieces and labeling each a separate project (fans of tax evasion in Taiwan will see an eerie echo of the subcontracting system). Land reclamation itself is not currently subject to an EIA due to the screening regulations, which determine which projects get an environmental impact assessment. Thus, if your factory is going to be built on reclaimed land, the project is not assessed as land + factory, but only as the factory. One of the recommendations the conference intends to make is that land reclamation projects be subject to the EIA process. Winkler noted later that even if land reclamation becomes subject to EIA, so many projects have been approved that it will take years to have an effect.

Winkler summed up the EIA process: “after twenty years of EIA, Taiwan is going full blast with industrial parks and science parks.” Taiwan still faces the serious problem of business-government collusion, and the government is full of well-intentioned but disoriented and discouraged officials, worn down by the magnitude of the problem, Winkler observed. True, industry does take some on as “consultants” but the feeling I got from listening to Winkler, as I do whenever I hear knowledgeable people talk about the Taiwanese they work with, was that the government was full of people who really do want to make the system work. Winkler noted that in the world rankings of sustainable development, Taiwan ranked second to last, trailed only by North Korea. “What’s needed is a change in mindset,” Winkler said.

Real men bash metal.

In the Q&A session, Winkler returned to the disparity in resources. Concerned individuals generally volunteer, he observed, while experts for government and business are full time. He gave an example of the way government and business collude, the Hushan Dam EIA. The company subcontracted the ecological review to another company, which came back with a report saying that the dam site is the most important nesting ground for the Fairy Pitta, a very charismatic bird, and a threatened species. That fact somehow dropped out of the report that went to the Commissioners. Sitting next to me was a South African bird enthusiast, who pointed out that the valley’s importance to the Fairy Pitta was first discovered by Swinhoe back in 1862.

Similarly, Winkler had reviewed 4 projects relating to the Mailiao Development projects, the eighth naptha cracker (for plastics manufacturing), the Formosa Plastics plant, a steel plant, and a port. The Dolphins had come up as an issue, since they live off the west coast where the project was being carried out. Studies by the Council of Agriculture showed that the dolphins came up only to the sandbar south of the port — meaning that they would not have to be considered by the project. But, as Winkler pointed out, other work, very easily found, showed that Sousa was known north of the sandbar and north of the project itself. That information somehow didn’t appear in the reports appended to the EIA, an omission which Winkler described as “bordering on criminal.”

Winkler’s presentation was followed by a presentation on marine EIA by Christina MacFarquhar. Prior to August of 2007, she observed, there were no regulations on marine EIA, just a few lines here and there in other laws. The marine ecological assessment regulations, whose scope covers bays, estuaries, tidal zones, coastal, and sea areas. MacFarquhar said that of the six plans for coastal area construction she reviewed, none contained measurable, quantifiable limits for the monitoring plans — they promised action if pollution was “excessive.” That type of vague legal framework will also be familiar to old Taiwan hands.

Currently there is no requirement for EIA for tidal flat reclamation or land reclamation. It does exist in another law, but the screening regulations for the EIA don’t require it, and the EIA act and screening process (for what projects get EIAs) appear to trump the other rules. Hence, what Winkler and MacFarquhar want to see is the clear specification that land reclamation be subject to an EIA under the screening rules.

MacFarquhar interviewed 12 of the 14 Commissioners from outside the government about the EIA process. They said that the Commissioners lack the time and resources to really do proper reviews, and at least one noted that instead of reviewing the information itself, the reports are so flawed that most of his time and resources were spent just verifying the authenticity of the information.

A street in Changhua.

As I’ve noted before on my blog with respect to swimming, Taiwan has a “land-based” mentality that focuses largely on the land and its products. A commentator noted that from the environmental point of view, this meant that “as long as we are taking care of the land we are OK.” The sea has never been an issue in local development. For the vast majority of Taiwanese, it is simply a place into which garbage is dumped and out of which fish are taken.

The afternoon discussion revolved around the role of the scientists in the conservation process for the dolphins. The question was not an academic one as all present were veterans of previous conservation campaigns. William Perrin, one of the world’s ranking experts on marine mammals, was there, as was John Wang, a prominent local expert, and Randall Reeves, another high-ranking marine mammal scientist. The scientists were very concerned about issues of data, credibility, and advocacy — scientists are often reluctant to advocate since they feel that impairs their credibility.

One recommendation from the 2004 meeting was that a multistakeholder group be set up to resolve the issues. The scientists were familiar with a similar campaign in Hong Kong to save the dolphins in the harbor there. Winkler appeared to believe that such a group, however, would simply be overwhelmed by business interests. Given the lack of civic-mindedness here, I tended to agree. The scientists also discussed the problem of government buy-in. Over lunch I had the opportunity to talk with one of the local volunteers, who told me that the NGOs concerned with the dolphin issue here in Taiwan tend to communicate poorly with each other. The insufficient development of local NGOs was also mentioned in the discussion, though it did not become the subject of the debate.

William Perrin.

It was truly a wonderful opportunity to meet interesting, experienced, and committed individuals, and to witness them thrash out their differences in pursuit of a common goal, as well as to learn about the way our environment is cared for on The Beautiful Isle.

Change can happen quickly — Christina MacFarquhar told me in an email that gillnet fishing was banned in the Penghu quite rapidly once the government had been made aware of the problem. All agreed that though the situation is urgent, there’s still time to save the Pacific Humpback Dolphins.

Want to do something about the dolphins and the environment in Taiwan? Wild at Heart, the legal defense foundation for the environment, can always use your commitment of time and cash. Save the Taiwan Humpback Dolphin blog always great pics and information, including recent posts on a dolphin that swam up to Taichung and then back to Yunlin, and on the threat of the offshore windfarms now proposed.

UPDATE: Don’t miss the great comment below from Mark Wilkie on the Fairy Pitta.